You’ve probably heard it before: “If you’re going to grow one thing, grow herbs.” You’ll be rewarded with unparalleled freshness and flavor, changing meals into moments, and you can live guilt free, no more mystery bags of wilted, unused bunches of something in the crisper — instead gather what you want when you need it.
So which herbs to grow, where to grow them and what to grow them in? First ask yourself which plants you reach for most, parsley, chives, basil, mint…? This will help guide you as to where and how to plant.
Most herbs can be grown in containers indoors and many of the non-woody, tender varieties such as cilantro, parsley, basil and marjoram can thrive in smaller pots, even in mason jars. Making a garden out of canning jars is perfect for a windowsill, is tidy and looks great. (I’m fully in on the canning jar craze.)
The trouble with canning jars is there is NO drainage. Short of adding holes, which is not advised, there are a few ways to trouble shoot this problem, which I outline below. However, as a full disclaimer, I’m still experimenting with this process and, at the moment, expect many of plants I grow in jars to be shorter lived than those growing in larger containers with adequate drainage and aeration. That said, I’m happy to treat the herbs I grow more like greens, planting little and often for successional crops or cut-and-come-again returns.
Make Your Own Canning Jar Herb Garden
What you’ll need:
- Canning jar(s), quart size is preferable.
- Organic potting soil. Potting soil is designed to hold moisture while not being water logged. Look for a mixture that is peat-free.
- Clean drain rock, pebbles, stones or glass beads.
- Perlite. Perlite is a common, soil and gardening amendment you can find at your local nursery or hardware store. It’s great for wicking water and it’s what makes this a modified hydroponic system.
- Seeds or seedlings. Start with just a few and go from there.
- Activated charcoal, *optional. Charcoal absorbs moisture as well as bacteria and fungi, helping to reduce the growth of mold and other undesirables thanks to a lack of drainage and aeration. Find charcoal at a pet store, nursery or here: Starwest Botanicals Charcoal Powder (Activated), 4 Ounces
What to do:
- Place a 1/2 inch to 1 inch layer of stones along the bottom of jars. The rocks will act as an interface between the jar and the perlite and soil layers. When watering, you should be able to see the water line at this layer. When you see water to the top of the rock layer, you know you don’t need to water — the water will wick up through the perlite to the soil. When dry, there is no water left to wick and the only water left for your plant is what is held in the soil. *See below for further watering instructions.
- Top the drain rock with a 1/2 inch to 1 inch layer of perlite.
- If you’re going to add charcoal, add it now. A thin layer will do.
- If planting seedlings, fill part way with potting soil. Add your seedling and then fill in around it, gently pressing the soil at the base of the plant to be sure it’s making good contact with the soil.
- If planting seeds, fill your jar nearly to the top with soil. Place 3 to 4 seeds toward the center of the planting area and give each seed about a 1/2 inch planting distance (don’t pile them up). Cover with soil, generally 1/8 to 1/4 inch for most herb seeds but check your seed packet to be sure. Water so soil is damp but not waterlogged. Once your seeds have germinated, thin the weaker, smaller starts by trimming with scissors and leave just one to grow. (Don’t forget to eat your thinnings!)
- Place jar(s) in your sunniest window and water only when one or both of the following things happen: If, one, you reach down into the soil and inch with your finger and it’s dry and/or, two, the drain rock is dry, the water having wicked up into the soil. The frequency of watering will depend on the plants you’re growing as well as your home environment: how sunny and hot the growing location, if you heat with forced air or otherwise, if it’s drafty, etc. And remember, some plants like thyme and oregano prefer drier soil while others may require more moisture.
The beauty of growing plants indoors is they’re under constant watch. This is a perfect opportunity to learn the unique qualities of each and how they grow. Some may thrive better than others and, while it’s no fun to have a plant die under your care, this too is good information. The more you grow, the better you get at it.
I’ll report back with changes or modifications as I learn them.
In the mean time, best of luck and enjoy! Emily
Hello! is the perlite absolutely necessary?
Hello! Perlite acts as a drainage improving layer. You could swap perlite for another material such as porous volcanic rock that’s been rinsed really well to remove excess dust. Best of luck!
I have quite of bit of sea shells. Will shells work instead of rock or stones for the bottom layer of the jars?
Hi Carrie, thanks for writing! I would think so, but be sure to wash them well so they’re free of salts.
I was thinking about putting a little hidden straw down to the stones to get some air flow. Do you think it would help any?
Hi Iris, I love this idea — what a good thinking. It may help quite a bit with air circulation. I’ll give it a try too and please let me know how it works for you. Happy summer! Emily
I was searching around for doing a mason jar garden on my patio for our condo and came across this page. How did the herbs do? Did you have any drainage issues as you mentioned?
They look beautiful, by the way!
Hi Erica, thanks for writing! Thanks too for your kind words. These herbs grew really well, especially for a small space, indoor environment. In my experience, all except maybe the cilantro have longer lives outdoors in larger containers – however for easy, indoor kitchen gardening and harvesting where you can control the watering, this herb garden system is wonderful. If you’re considering growing herbs outdoors in containers, I suggest using containers with drain holes – or repurposed containers to which you can add drain holes. Best of luck and happy spring! Emily
Do you use perlite if you’re using actual plants or is it mainly for seed starts?
Hi Tanya, I use perlite to help with wicking and managing moisture in the mason jar garden with any age or sized plant. Let me know how it works for you! 🙂
Couldn’t you just use all perlite and make it a hydroponic system? It would be cleaner. You would have to add nutrients, but not have to worry about mold our aeration.
Good question, Stephanie. The short answer is I’m a lover of soil. Personally, I love the way food tastes when grown in healthy, organic soil. My background is in ethno-botany, botany, ecology and soil science… I love natural systems. While I appreciate hydroponics and understand it’s technology that could feed the world, my little world includes soil. But please plant away in hydroponics – I’m sure with a system as closed as this mason jar herb garden it’s probably less of a battle. Would love to hear your results. Thank you!
Hi, I wish I had know about the charcoal when I planted up some plants without drainage, many, many years ago, after a few months I noticed a mildew smell in my kitchen, searched everywhere, cleaned everything, but the smell just got stronger, until I realised it was much stronger in the window area & especially after watering the plants, sure enough it was the soil, it had gone what is called ‘sweet’ yuk, I searched through gardening books & found the charcoal solution, but they recommended mixing it into the soil. I’m not sure about planting in jars, can the roots become damaged by direct sunlight if they grow through the soil & up against the jar, I know orchids need a clear pot, but not sure about other plants, I suppose the only way to find out is to try it 😀 as I like the idea of seeing the whole package from top to bottom, the layers are attractive too, thank you for sharing this 🙂
Hi Linda, thanks so much for sharing your story and all your thoughts and ideas on using charcoal as well as growing plants in glass jars. I’ll have to try mixing the charcoal with the soil next time — though I have yet to have trouble with this, I don’t see how it could hurt. I agree on the question of using clear glass for growing in. Roots, for the most part, as adapted to being underground and, therefore, in the dark. Growing in glass may present some problems for some varieties or it may be that plants eventually max out canning jars overtime and need to be potted up, moved out or eaten and we’re forced to start fresh. Certainly not much of a downside, I’ll take fresh herbs please. 🙂 So happy to hear from you! Best of luck with everything and happy planting! Emily